Myself and many others gathered today to say farewell to a good friend as he was laid to rest. I would only place myself within Jay’s social circle. We were good mates but I was never as close to him as those within his inner circle: those were the six who carried our friend’s coffin into the chapel. The place was packed, to the extent that the service had to be relayed outside on a large screen. I need say no more about Jay, when the attendance at his funeral speaks volumes and his closest friends delivered eulogies to him, which I wouldn’t be able to. To me, Jay was a friend and a peer. To others, he was more and I found out today that I am more to some people than I ever dared imagine.
Jay and I go back 34 years, as do a large segment of yesterday’s congregation. We went to Tunbridge Wells Grammar School for Boys together. Few of our group were model pupils but our education at the school, run by a legend of a headmaster, was partly what made us what we are. It’s a cliche but Jay would do anything for anyone, if he could and if it were right: he was charitable but not a charity. We grew up together. After leaving school, small groups remained in contact, while most went their own ways. Some of us have become reacquainted since and I include my own inner circle among those, as we reunited five years ago after 20 years of separation. True friendship isn’t bound by time and distance and without exception, all of the friends with whom I’ve become reacquainted never stopped being friends. Even after two or three decades, we are still able to talk as though we’re picking up on a conversation left, not 30 years ago but mere moments previously. As today and other events have reunited us, we’re an ever-expanding group of grown-up drinking buddies, who still all find it far more amusing than we should when someone farts loudly in an inappropriate situation.
Jay’s mum had requested that all guests wear brightly coloured ties or scarves. For my part, I wore part pink: shirt, tie and handkerchief with a black three-piece suit. Were it not for the congregation being so brightly-coloured, we might otherwise have been mistaken for an assembled firm. Most of us have little or no hair. Many of us have tattoos. My own tattoos were deemed worthy of further inspection when a couple of knowledgeable old schoolmates spotted that my children’s names and dates of birth were in the Helvetica typeface: we’re part-geek, despite our appearances otherwise. My imprints were proclaimed, “Awesome”.
I believe I can be forgiven my assumption that I’d lost even some of my closest friends as a result of my personal derailment. I can’t blame them for dropping what they saw as a lost cause and I’d be lying if I claimed that I would have done otherwise if the situations were reversed. What my old friends saw was the same as my family were witnessing: a person in a downward spiral, intent on self-destruction and too far gone to be saved. Why try to help someone who cannot, or will not be helped? I know for a fact that some wished me dead and with the benefit of hindsight, I understand why that emotion would have come to be, even when stripped to it’s barest, harshest and most literal translation. What became apparent though, as told to me by the very same people, was that they wished me dead for my own sake as well as their own. They could see that I was killing myself, there was nothing they could do to stop me and it was therefore best that things be allowed to take their own course for the sake of everyone. More than one of my friends who I spoke to admitted that they had shed tears of despair and premature grievance for a personal loss. This was the first shock. I didn’t know. Fucking hell.
Even as I lay there dying, I still found the energy to kick shit in people’s faces
What hit home hardest though, was hearing from one of my wingmen how my breakdown had affected my parents. I’d been told before but I dismissed it at the time: I was drunk, I was right and everyone else was wrong. My parents hated me: why else would they have thrown me out of the family home? With the benefit of sobriety, I can see that they were merely doing as my friends felt that they had to: let me go. Consequently and unseen to me, they were in pieces. I didn’t believe people when they told me back then that I’d almost ripped my family apart. Now I believe them. One particular detail of my friend’s retelling of the meeting with my parents struck me especially hard. Anyone fortunate enough to know my father will testify that he is one tough individual. He’s soft-centred but old school. I have only ever known him to cry on four occasions and was witness to just two of those. To see someone so strong reduced to tears, makes those of us less strong feel even weaker. To be told by one of my best mates that I had reduced my dad to tears, without knowing that’s what I’d done because I didn’t credit him with caring enough: fuck sake… I don’t think I’ve ever felt worse. I know I’ve had the same effect on my mum many times and I feel no less guilty but the guilt is diluted over so many episodes because they’ve been more common. Finding out today how I’d affected my at times unwaivering dad, was like getting an unexpected but well-deserved punch in the Hampsteads: it shocked me, hurt like fuck and my eyes filled up with water. I love my mum and dad equally and liked myself even less when I found out that what I became for a while, really had got at the foundations of the family. Then while I was down on a certain level, I decided to kick mud in everyone’s faces: what a cunt I was. Of all the admissions I continue to make, now that the dust is settling and I can see more clearly, this is one of the biggest: my sister was right. So too were my friends. I was the one who was wrong, not wronged.
“If I keep beating myself up, I feel better…”
I was unaware of the depths to which the earthquake that I was the epicentre of penetrated, perhaps through general ignorance but at least partly because of an opinion of myself which had been in steady decline while I myself was on the downward slope. So, why did I fight? Truth be known, as it is to me only now: I feared the unknown: sobriety and reality.
In a way, I feared today. After all, this was the first time I’d seen some of my old friends since I’ve sobered up and long since I’d caused them so much distress and we’d parted company. Knowing the old me as I have had to come to terms with, I wouldn’t want to talk to someone who could be so objectionable as I was. I underestimated my friends, just as I had apparently done myself at least a bit of a disservice. Without exception, the close friends with whom I confided, understood. My previous irrational behaviour can now be placed in some kind of context: it’s not excusable but it’s explainable.
As is my way, I wore my heart on my sleeve when speaking to friends about my period of teetering on the edge of a chasm: events that led me there, that I wanted to die and how true alcohol abuse – and not just a few drinks with friends – can almost destroy a person and all around them. The recovery remains something which I had to do for myself and to all intents alone, because I would not, could not and should not be helped. There were – frankly, welcome – questions, which I answered candidly to the greater understanding of my conditions. I encountered neither judgement nor grudge. The greatest understanding was gained through my explaining of how the controlled drinking programme I submitted to for six months worked at a psychological level. Once, drink number x would cause me to feel tipsy but where “tipsy” to most is slightly merry and relaxed, “tipsy” to me had become a harbinger of unpleasant things to come. To block this out, I would have another drink. This of course was counter-productive and that next drink would make me feel worse. So I’d drink more. It’s self-perpetuating and makes no sense at all but that is what alcoholics do and it’s why they do it. Now, I’m able to spot the signs as they approach. I’m aware of what’s happening and of what I might become if I go down the old route of blocking it all out. That’s when I get abusive, violent and someone no-one cares to know. So I stop: it’s that simple, thanks to psychology. My questioners found it hard to fathom how an alcoholic can simply stop drinking: it’s all in the mind and I was taught a degree of mind control. So in a way, it just happened. I wasn’t really aware of the transition from drunk to sober because it was gradual. With alcoholics, like depressives, it takes one to truly know one. The only way to truly understand is to go through it and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I’m always going to be an alcoholic, who can’t enjoy a drink like most other people; I’m alcohol dependent but I’m in control: I’m a functioning alcoholic.
Since returning home, I’ve been drinking mainly cafe au lait. I didn’t have my daily fill of alcohol today but I’d had enough for then. I may have another pint before I finally turn in for the night. As things stand, I’m quite comfortable sitting at my writing desk, burning the midnight oil, writing this and a few other projects. I’d rather write now than do most other things, including drinking. If I drink, I don’t write as coherently as when sober and I let myself down by churning out sub-standard copy to my beta readers, my fiction and non-fiction editors, who are useful but often time-poor people in this profession.
As I explained to people today that this is what I have chosen to do with my life, there wasn’t a single raised eyebrow. Many of my close friends have continued to follow my blog and read my work, even when we have parted company. This was further news to me today: again, I underestimated how much that lot care. I was surprised by how much some of them knew: they’d been reading this blog. At various points in the past, some of my friends stopped reading because they were so despairing of me. Now that they’ve come back and seen me in person today, they can see that I’m a better person. That’s always been part of the point of keeping a blog: I can look back and see what I was up to, say, a year ago. My ex-wife thought it inadvisable but now that I’ve got better, the historic posts to this blog serve as reminders of places not to go again: places I’d otherwise have forgotten because I was drunk.
How can I be sure that I won’t lapse again? Because I now know how many people care for me and how much they care. People do give a shit about me and I am not going to let them down. Knowing now what they went through the last time, I am not going to inflict that on anyone again. I truly am sorry: I live with it every day and the realisation that I credited everyone else with only the worth I applied to myself makes everything I did even worse. There is a small defence: my mental state being so hard to fathom.
I try to convey in my writing that which I find hard to articulate verbally. A couple of people did say today that although they read my stuff, sometimes I leave them standing. I took the intelligence compliment as it was quantified as being intended but given a longer timeframe, I might have entered into more protracted discussions, as I do with the beta readers of my novels. To do so though would be to attempt to deconstruct my stream-of-consciousness musings and I’m still learning to understand myself, in part through writing. Like my novels and short fiction, sometimes my blog posts are worthy of a repeat reading. I have to do it often.
My writing was variously described today as, “Very insightful”, “Intelligent” and “Fucking clever”: the latter from one of my friends, who introduced me to someone I’d not met before: “This guy is a FUCKING good writer…”
As an aside, I received a comment from someone today who has read The Paradoxicon, my debut novel, a second time:
“I have just finished reading The Paradoxicon for the second time: even better than the first. When I read it a second time, I saw a completely different story and now I have a better idea of what it’s all about. There are so many subtexts that I may have to read it a third time. How did you do that? There’s a trick in there and I didn’t see it coming, despite it being there all along. You are a very clever writer.
“I’ve read a lot of your short fiction but the one I don’t think I’ll ever get out of my mind is “COGS”: really? That is one twisted tale but so beautifully told. Then you go and do something like The Child Who Wished for Nothing: that made me cry. I mean, Frank Burnside? Brilliant.
“You are one incredibly talented writer. I look forward to reading more of your work. So glad I found your website.”
If I sought any kind of recognition, that which I prized the most would be the recognition of my life peers. I’m already acknowledged by others in my field but to be recognised as a talent by the kind of people I was with today is an accolade to treasure. My friends can see what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I feel vindicated. I feel accepted back into the fold, which I was never really cast out of and I feel more confident and qualified to state with a sense of pride, what I do: I’m a writer. By most accounts, I’m pretty good and my old mates can see that and the good which my passion is doing me and has done in therapy and recovery.
I was touched by how much attention my old friends had paid me in their knowledge of everything that had happened since some of us last met. This was brought home by the number of people who observed that my son, Louis was now ten-years-old and that Lola is eight. How could they possibly know this? I really hope the satire isn’t misplaced.
The one thing which would have improved the day would have been for Jay not to have been dead but were it not for him, everything that happened wouldn’t have been possible.
The lengths you’d go to: cheers mate.
I raise a coffee and continue to fight for the right to write into the night.
Jason Scott Nevin: 30.12.1969 – 30.08.2015